I still remember that time when I was taking care of the EMiNA Cyber booth during the Clubs & Societies Registration Week (the locals call it “Fishing Week”, because we would be “fishing” for new members). The list of new members was getting longer, line by line, as usual. This was to be expected for all clubs at the beginning of every new academic year.That list will slowly decrease as the days went on, but that’s another story. This petite African girl popped up out of nowhere, and hovered near the booth. I thought she might be waiting for someone, or maybe she wanted to ask for directions.
Turns out she was an otaku, and she was exactly where she wanted to be.
That was my first introduction to Clare Okalany. It was… unique, having an Ugandan girl in an anime club. It kind of gave us a few extra points in the “street cred” department, as if to say that we’re so cool because we have foreigners joining our club out of their own volition. I didn’t really know what to make of it. But I could clearly remember that it was always fun talking to her. It was never dull, because she has this element of spontaneity in her responses that would always keep you on your toes.
For one reason or another, I lost contact with her after that initial excitement of hanging out with new members. I became consumed with the mundane routine of life in MMU. Clare disappeared into the crowd of international students who were part of the student community, but wasn’t really. Sometimes I would message her and she would message me, and we would meet up and get caught in a rush of updates and catching up. But the wait for replies would slowly get longer, and soon I would be consumed by those routines yet again. It didn’t help that we were in completely different faculties, with completely different schedules and commitments. I would see her in random EMiNA events, and we would again lose contact soon after that.
I always wondered how she felt, being thousands of kilometers away from home. Being pigeonholed into the standard African stereotypes that we’ve come up with. Being sidelined in groups. Being the “token black friend” whenever she hung out with her classmates/coursemates/friends.
When she entered her final year, we started hanging out more. I don’t really remember what changed actually, just that it was easier to meet up with her for lunches or dinners. This was when I noticed the stares that she got, no matter where she was. The wide-eyed stares that she received when she ordered garlic butter naan, or the awkward glances from people when they noticed how much she enjoyed her serving of nasi lemak.
I felt guilty when I noticed all these things, because I was guilty of them as well.
Her last few weeks in Malaysia didn’t go well. She was forced to travel from her sister’s place at Bandar Tasik Selatan to Cyberjaya several times a week to waddle through the red tape of her convocation issues. She lost her passport, and received no support or help from Malaysian immigration. In the end, she was given an ultimatum: either get on a plane back to Uganda within 24 hours, or arrested as an illegal immigrant. This, despite having an official letter from the Ugandan High Commission, as well as a certified police report for the lost passport.
“They welcome you in, take your money and then kick you the fuck out,” she told me, partly out of frustration and a resigned acceptance as we were having our final lunch/lepak session together. That very night, she boarded the plane back to Uganda.
Clare was interviewed by Poskod.my before she left for home. They were doing a project for National Day: a series of write-ups on communities of foreign nationals who decided to call Malaysia “home”, either temporarily or permanently. Her story become a part of their collection; a three-part account of her post-war childhood, her life in Malaysia, and everything in between. These write-ups on Clare were published after she was back home.
I knew that she was being interviewed by someone, but the existence of these articles only came to my knowledge when she posted the links up on Twitter. They showcased a part of her that I never bothered to find out. I knew very little about her, and I was satisfied with those pitiful bits of information. It was just the tip of a very large iceberg, an iceberg I never bothered to explore.
Sorry about that, Clare. Hope you don’t kick my ass too much the next time we meet. Now I know (a bit) better.